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Family life educators guide young parents to better skills
By Patti Drapala
MSU Ag Communications
MISSISSIPPI STATE – The tradition of passing parenting skills from one generation to the next is being lost as traditional family structures change, but the Mississippi State University Extension Service is nurturing a program that helps young mothers and fathers cope.
Many young parents, particularly teenagers, may not know what it takes to raise children. Through the Master Family Life Educator program, professional social workers, counselors and resource center specialists can volunteer for parenting training and then work with young people on these skills.
Extension child and family development specialist Louise Davis brought the idea to Mississippi after attending a Strengthening Families Conference that highlighted several successful programs. She discovered the Master Teacher in Family Life program that started in Massachusetts.
“We thought this program would be a good fit for Mississippi because of the rural makeup of our communities and lack of resources for parenting programs,” Davis said.
With the support of Extension Family and Consumer Sciences administrators, Davis selected a comprehensive parenting-based curriculum. More than 50 agents participated in the training. Former Pearl River County Extension home economist Shirley Wiltshire implemented a pilot program in her county.
When Extension leadership development specialist Bettye Wadsworth was reassigned as an area child and family development agent for the coastal area of Mississippi, she continued to build upon Pearl River’s successful start with an areawide program.
“We wanted to maximize the efforts of our agents in developing family life programs,” Davis said. “We needed to build a strong base for family life programming, and this was a way to accomplish that goal while not putting a burden on our agents. The idea of training professionals who worked in these communities allowed us to do that.”
Many professionals in the state who have become Master Family Life Educators indicate that the program gives them additional expertise to help their clients. Extension area agents in child and family development provide three days of specialized training for these volunteers. To receive this designation, participants must demonstrate their proficiency and understanding by “teaching parenting skills” back to the Extension trainer.
Wadsworth, who is based in Jackson County, has taken the program to new heights. Her territory stretches across 11 counties from Pearl River in the west to the border with Alabama on the east and north up to Forrest County. She has trained more than 65 volunteers in this area and assisted the Mississippi Department of Health in providing training for more than 300 of the agency’s social workers.
Wadsworth said she knows the program is working when she sees young mothers and fathers blossom into effective parents after working with volunteers. She witnessed one young woman come into her own as a parent after working with one of her trained volunteers. The young mother had lost custody of her child and was devastated by this event.
“After working with this volunteer, the young mother decided to take responsibility for herself and her child, as she learned what to do and how to do it,” Wadsworth said. “When she proved to the court she had indeed changed her attitude and outlook, the judge returned the child. That parent is still doing a great job of parenting. You can’t put a dollar value on that.”
One of the first groups to contact Wadsworth about the Master Family Life Educator program was the Family Life and Abuse Center in Picayune. The counselors were excited and immersed themselves in the training.
“As an example of the center’s ability to make a difference through this program, employees devoted more than 57 teaching hours and reached 650 people in a three-month period from July of this year to September,” Wadsworth said. “That indicates just how needed this program is.”
When word began to spread across south Mississippi, Wadsworth held training sessions for other groups, including the Junior Auxiliary in Pascagoula. The auxiliary wanted the program to help pregnant teenagers attending Pascagoula High School and Gautier High Schools. Included in this group were a retired pediatrician and a retired judge.
“Members of this group have college degrees and come from professional backgrounds in the business, educational and medical sectors of the community,” Wadsworth said. “One volunteer told me that going through the training opened her eyes to important parenting skills she wished she could have known as she raised her own children.”
Establishing a strong network of volunteers is an ongoing objective for specialists and agents with child and family development responsibilities. Much remains to be done for families.
“This program takes commitment on behalf of our Extension agents and the volunteers they train,” Davis said. “But it is especially relevant now because of the economy and other burdens our families are facing in this state.”
Contact: Bettye Wadsworth, (662) 769-3047